Sizwe Banzi is alive and well

Thirty-one years ago, shortly before the Soweto uprisings, two young, black South African actors—Winston Ntshona and John Kani—made Broadway history. It was the first, and to this day the only, time that in winner-takes-all America two performers shared the first place for best actor at the theatre world’s Oscars—the Tony Awards. The play was Sizwe Banzi is Dead, devised by the actors together with Athol Fugard.
It was a morale-boosting coup that cast the international spotlight on the cruel bonds of red tape that underpinned draconian apartheid.

The play tells the story of an honest rural black man battling a dehumanising Kafkaesque bureaucracy. He cannot find employment because he does not possess a pass, and must assume the identity of a dead man to survive. It is a story that struck a universal chord.

Now firmly cited as a classic of South African theatre, it is still widely referred to, performed and was even published in book form, incorrectly as Sizwe Bansi. This is because of a misspelling on a poster that was sent to the Royal Court Theatre, which neither Fugard nor the actors bothered to correct—according to Brian Astbury, progenitor of the legendary Cape Town Space Theatre, which premiered the work in 1972.

Overseas success soon brought political heat. After a performance in Umtata in 1976, the puppet Bantustan regime in the Transkei rather capriciously arrested Ntshona and Kani for what the vulgar tinpot despot George (brother of Kaizer) Matanzima called the ‘vulgar” language in the play. It caused international outrage—thanks to that Tony Award—but harassment didn’t let up. In 1979, the police managed to stop the opening night when the play returned to The Space after its international accolades and its 1978 run at The Market in Johannesburg.

In the 1970s, Ntshona and Kani bravely toured Sizwe Banzi and The Island to schools, community halls, churches, any venue they could find in the black townships. Known collectively as the statements plays, they originated at around the same time from Fugard’s Port Elizabeth troupe, The Serpent Players. Sizwe Banzi’s reputation as a ‘watershed” production breaking new ground was established.

Its revival in 2006 at the National Arts Festival appropriately returns the work to the Eastern Cape and features the original cast. Ntshona turns 65 this year and Kani is just three years younger. Theatrical facilitator Mannie Manim says they’ve been talking about doing Sizwe Banzi ever since they started their highly successful revival of The Island in 1995, and have been touring it to the capitals of the West ever since.

Director of the current South African revival Aubrey Sekhabi has not worked from the published text, but from a BBC recording made in the late 1970s. According to Sekhabi, this is the version that won Kani and Ntshona the Tony Award.

The cast describe their rehearsal period at the State Theatre as a rewarding process of sharing. Although the ‘old boys”—who are lifelong friends—often knocked off early, Sekhabi says they are committed, seasoned professionals, in stark contrast to many of the lackadaisical young actors he has to deal with these days. Kani’s penchant for telling stories seems to have occupied a fair portion of their time. On the opening night in 1972, Kani’s improvisation, which starts the play, went on for an hour and half, until Fugard sent a furious Ntshona on stage in the middle of yet another yarn.

The revival is doubtlessly a great commercial idea. Representing it as commemorating the 30 years since the Soweto uprisings is a tempting hook, but stretching things unnecessarily. A revival of a classic work with the original cast is a perfectly legitimate activity and the producers should feel secure doing this. Only the sourest of audiences would not wish to indulge them.

Ntshona feels the play allows today’s audiences to experience life as it was in the ‘dark period of this country’s history”. Kani maintains it is a vivid portrayal of ‘what it was like to have been black in South Africa at the time”. In his original review, American critic Stanley Kauffmann dismissively wrote that the play was ‘only about the troubles of South African blacks”.

What then of its contemporary relevance? I put the question to Sekhabi, who replied that it has a significant message for ‘anyone living under an oppressive system anywhere in the world”.

Director Peter Brook, who is staging the work in French as Sizwe Banzi est Mort and touring it everywhere from Jerusalem to Dublin, told The Economist that the play is for him ‘about a fundamental lack of respect for the African”, which exists to this day in the world.

In an academic paper, André Brink feels ambiguous about its infusion by Fugard with European existentialism. Anne Fuchs, in her Playing the Market: The Market Theatre, Johannesburg, 1976 to 1986, regards it as ‘too white-oriented”.

But the proof of its enduring popularity, arguably due to its Fugardian existential transcendence of socio-political themes, and its almost continuous performance in one part of the world or another speaks for itself.

After the National Arts Festival, Sizwe Banzi is Dead moves to the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, The State Theatre in Pretoria, The Market Theatre in Johannesburg and will also be seen at the Hilton Festival

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